Screen Education


Let’s begin at the end. Celebrated director David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) concludes with the melancholic image of a New Orleans storeroom being flooded by the rising waters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. As a desk chair dances its way through the swiftly running water, we see, for the last time, the large and abandoned train-station clock that has run backwards since being installed in the city in 1918, in the months prior to the end of World War I. This image of the passing of time, the distortion of chronology, the longing to reverse and reclaim the past, the intimacy and choreography of small and large things, the specificity of place, and the inundation and debris of history provides an apt leitmotif for the strange, often quiet, uncanny, muted and haunting journey taken by Fincher’s film. This unadorned moment’s slightly too insistent symbolism and metaphorical overreach are equally emblematic of this intimate epic. Benjamin Button is full of stunning flashes of contemplation, soulfully intimate exchanges and flamboyant technological achievements that are masked in the ordinariness of daily life and gently passing time; that jostle with patently overworked images, situations and repeated refrains of dialogue; and that drag an often magical, dreamlike and exquisitely detailed movie back into the mundane fields of cliché and homily.

In essence, is a fascinatingly schizophrenic work that undercuts its persistent sentimentality with a rare focus on the realities of ageing and mortality. As film critic Dave Kehr has argued, ‘Growing old is a subject American movies have largely avoided since the 1980s’ – though it was a rare theme long before that date as well – and Fincher’s film pointedly uses ‘the same special effects technology, now extended into the digital realm, that American movies have used for so long to keep us trapped in perpetual childhood’. It is this extraordinary hybrid of the childish and the adult – along with those of life and death; homespun wisdom and stark philosophy (one of the film’s trailers even paraphrases Søren Kierkegaard); the cynical and satirical sensibilities of the short story’s jazz-age author, F Scott Fitzgerald, and the. In the process, it emerges as one of the most surprising, even ‘curious’, films to be made by a major studio (two, in fact, with Paramount and Warner Bros. joining forces) in the last twenty years, its relative commercial success a tonic for its estimated US$150 million budget and uncommonly intimate focus on the processes of death at work.

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